DEAR MISS MANNERS: I have found myself in a curious position. As a server in a prominent restaurant, I was accosted by two women who took offense to me referring to them as "young ladies." The ladies in question were possibly mid-50s to mid-60s, and one became irate, informing me that to refer to her as "young lady" was an insult and condescending.
She went on to say that all her friends agree, and at her age she knows she is not young and I was just being rude. After being surprised by that outburst, I was verbally thrashed by the "lady's" husband for referring to a man as "sir." He indicated that "sir" was, as well, condescending and indicated old age.
I have been a server for many years. I refer to ALL my female guests as "miss," "ma'am," "missus" or "young lady." I refer to ALL my male guests as "sir," "gentlemen" or "young man," regardless of age.
My mother -- 70 years old -- takes no offense to the "young lady" -- in fact, she loves it. My father expects "sir"; there is no other address.
Miss Manners, is it wrong to refer to women of any age as "young ladies" and men of any age as "sir"?
GENTLE READER: What an ill-matched and ill-natured couple you had the misfortune to encounter. The wife accuses you of being condescending for not recognizing that she is old, and the husband accuses you of being condescending for supposedly implying that he is.
What Miss Manners recognizes is the temptation to dismiss them both as cranks whose accusations have canceled each other. She commends you for using the incident instead to ponder the bizarre emotions that modern Americans have about age.
It has come to be generally considered disgraceful, if not disgusting, to age. The commercial world and the promoters of mental and physical health bombard us with products and techniques that claim to retard, if not reverse, aging. The implication is that ignorance or laziness is what keeps us from staying young, and the elderly have only themselves to blame.
As a result, an elaborate system of dissimulation has arisen, with which people conceal their own ages and reassure one another of eternal youth: "Oh, I'm too young to remember that," "You haven't changed a bit," "Your daughter? Why I thought you two were sisters," and so on.
Failing to observe this convention brings on the accusation of "You make me feel old." There can hardly be a more self-defeating complaint, as only the old have been known to utter it.
It is taken to such an extreme that many old people forgo -- and claim to be insulted by -- respect and consideration. To accept the offer of a seat or, as you discovered, a dignified title, may inspire rudeness.
Yet the two complaints you received are not parallel. "Young lady" is not a title of respect, but an apparent comment on age, born of the notion that everyone wants to seem young. Your mother may enjoy it, but with strangers, you should stick with "ma'am" or "miss."
You will still get complaints, like the one about using "sir," from those deluded enough to think that giving up the privileges of age will make them seem young. But no reasonable person can fault you for showing respect.
(Please send your questions to Miss Manners at her website, www.missmanners.com; to her email, firstname.lastname@example.org; or through postal mail to Miss Manners, Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.)